FAO to elect new Director General, a new phase of the Rome Agencies

di Mario Ghioldi - 19 Giugno 2019

Rome, Italy

FAO to elect new Director General, a new phase of the Rome Agencies

June 2019, a crucial month for FAO’s history

June 2019 will be a crucial month for agriculture development and global food security as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is going to appoint its new Director General. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, the FAO works to defeat hunger and achieve food security (The alliance to end hunger, 2019). The position of Director General is pivotal for those achieving the above-mentioned goals and those working in food, agriculture and nutrition. Currently, FAO works in more than 130 countries worldwide, and as such  the election can have a relevant impact on the field of the International development and on relations among countries (Sustainable development goal 2 advocacy hub, 2019).

As stressed by different academic articles, development is becoming one of the most important political tools used by International Powers in order to spread their influence (Chandler, 2007). Thus, the future approach of the new Director General could affect directly the balance among the most powerful countries. At the same time, the appointment of a Director General is a prestigious achievement for the country (or region) of his nationality.

The electoral procedures and the candidates

An important first phase of the appointment was carried out last April. Following the FAO’s election procedure, the nominated candidates addressed the 8-12 April FAO Council session for 90 minutes answering to questions from Council members (Sustainable development goal 2 advocacy hub, 2019). The second important part is set to be developed at the FAO Conference, from 22-29 June, where the new Director General will be elected by a majority vote. Similarly to other UN elections, the new FAO chief will be elected with a procedure involving elimination of the candidate with the fewest votes in successive ballots, until a majority vote for one candidate is obtained (FIAN International, 2019). Considering this last factor, the election will be influenced by the block strategies. It would be important to understand how a regional group votes after the elimination or the withdrawal of its own candidate.

The election in 2011 of the current FAO Director General, José Graziano da Silva is a clear example about the above-mentioned concepts. The Brazilian was supported by the Latin American, Caribbean and African countries and the G77 states formed by developing nations. As desired by many countries which backed him (especially Brazil and the People’s Republic of China), during his mandate, da Silva spent particularly efforts on the South-South cooperation (The Hagstrom report, 2011).

Currently, four candidates have been nominated for the role of Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Beyond describing all of them, it will be also important to understand which regional blocks back the candidates.

Ms Geslain-Lanéelle: an engineer representing the EU

During the Council of the EU held in the last October, the former head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the French Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, was endorsed as the sole EU candidate. Having no formal procedure to designate an EU candidate, Brussel’s decision was not so fast (Fortuna, 2018). Moreover, the latent disagreement among the European countries explains the initial lack of explicit consensus on the French candidate. No European has held the FAO director-general position since Dutchman Addeke Hendrik Boerma, whose mandate lasted from 1968 to 1975 (Fortuna, 2019). Thus, the Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle candidature seems particularly challenging. The EU institutions wanted to avoid these mistakes made in the last FAO election when member states failed to submit a single candidacy. In fact, in 2011 Spain and Austria submitted two different valid candidates, who lost against Graziano da Silva.

Ms Geslain-Lanéelle has high-level experience in food systems, food security and rural development, both in France and in Europe. Moreover, she has covered relevant positions at the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food (Sustainable development goal 2 advocacy hub, 2019). For example, she has been Director-General for the economic and environmental performance of businesses.

At European level, as mentioned before, she led the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for seven years.

Qu Dongyu and Ramesh Chand, the Asian crucial competition

As regards China and India, two active countries inside the UN system, have presented two different candidates who will compete for the seat of Director General. The commitment of New Delhi and Beijing shows again how countries are still considering multilateralism an important tool in order to expand their spheres of influence (Sidhu, 2014). As well, the candidatures display the old regional competition between these countries in the Asiatic context (Korybko, 2019).

The candidature of Qu Dongyu, Vice-Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, is part of the new China policy inside the multilateral system. Currently, different relevant positions inside International Organizations are covered by Chinese directors. The Director General of  United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Under- Secretary- General of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) are clear examples of that (Okano-Heijmans, Van der Putten, 2018). Before his activity with the Ministry, Qu Dongyu worked at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The New Delhi’s candidate is Dr Ramesh Chand, an agricultural economist and policy maker. Since 2015, he has been a member of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog. This institution is a policy think tank chaired directly by the Prime Minister of India. Thus, considering his role, Dr Chand is directly leading India’s development agenda in agriculture and food security (Sustainable development goal 2 advocacy hub, 2019). The candidature of Chand is another symbol of the intense activity of India inside the United Nations, expressed mostly with the promotion of the G4 reform. Together with Germany, Japan and Brazil, India is still trying to carry out an important reform to include their own countries inside the small group of the Permanent Members of the Security Council (The Economic India Times, 2018).

The Georgian alternative: Davit Kirvalidze

Also Kirvalidze has an impressive background. Beyond being Minister of Agriculture of Georgia for two terms, he has worked as Consultant with various International Organizations. As Minister, he spent efforts in order to increase productivity and attract investments into Georgian agriculture sector. Thanks to his previous experiences, Kirvalidze has cooperated with the Rome agencies and other International Organizations or Programs, such as: UNDP, WB, IMF or USAID (Sustainable development goal 2 advocacy hub, 2019).

Considering the Georgian foreign politics and its activity inside the Rome agencies, Kirvalidze could be backed by different countries coming from the central part of Asia and some states hailing from the former Soviet Republics. Thus, the Georgian candidate could weaken the race of the other competitors who come from three world political and economic powers.

Africa and Latin America, the great absents

Although many African areas are always mentioned by the FAO and WFP studies (Roby, 2019) for the constant troubles concerning food security, surprisingly no candidate comes from this continent. Until March, the Cameroonian Mèdi Mongui was inside the pool of the above-mentioned candidates. The big hopes in Monguì disappeared with the withdrawal of the Cameroonian in the last months. This action has surely changed the balance among the remaining competitors.

Without an African candidate, the preferences coming from the countries of the biggest group inside the UN (composed by 54 members, 24% of total votes) will be the tiebreaker (United Nations, 2017). This context seems to promote those candidates coming from those powers which have political and economic (old and new) links with Africa. Thus, Geslain-Lanéelle and Qu Dongyu especially could take important advantages from the situation.

In a similar way, inside the competition there is no candidate coming from Latin America or the Cariibbean. Considering that the current General – Director comes from Brazil, the chances for a potential runner from this region would have been low. Also in this case, the absence of a local candidate could influence the competition. Especially China has made important efforts inside the development sector in order to create economic and political links with different countries. A clear example is the relation between Beijing and Montevideo. China is Uruguay’s main trade partner and a significant market for beef, soybeans and other agriculture commodities (MercoPress, 2013). It is not a coincidence that Uruguay has already formally announced its support for Qu Dongyu (MercoPress, 2019).

The da Silva legacy, what is the future of the FAO?

The data provided by the same Rome agencies describes a dramatic background (Food and Agriculture Organization,2018). Levels of hunger have grown for the past three years, affecting different places in the world. Moreover, the rise of populism and nationalism is bringing some important FAO funders, like the US, to cut aid budget (Lei Win, 2019).

Despite the above-mentioned troubles, Graziano da Silva has been the leader and supervisor of ambitious internal reforms. In particular, the General Director has been focused on improving the effectiveness of the FAO’s action, in the face  of the donor criticism during the previous administration.

Beyond these difficulties, the new General Director will have to face other important challenges related to food security. Following the opinions of UN officers, the  concept of food security itself is changing. It is not only a question of food supply but it is also linked with nutrition issues, such as childhood obesity (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019). Another important issue concerns how climate change is affecting food security, triggering important processes like conflicts or migratory flows (World Food Programme, 2015). As shown by the debate held in April, each candidate has different approaches in order to face the FAO problems and matters; the next weeks will show which one will be taken up by this Rome Agency.


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Autore dell’articolo *Mario Ghioldi, Dr. in International Studies and Diplomacy presso L’Università degli Studi di Siena; Master in Diritti Umani presso SIOI

* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore